Friends of the Earth Middle East: This was a ‘seeping time bomb.’

The IDF has taken steps to keep a highly dangerous carcinogen from polluting one of Israel’s key water sources, the western part of the Mountain Aquifer, according to information published Sunday by Friends of the Earth Middle East.

For the last seven years, the carcinogen chromium III has seeped into one of the largest cross-border streams that originates in the Hebron Hills.

The stream crosses the Green Line and merges with Nahal Beersheba and Nahal Besor before continuing toward the Mediterranean Sea.

“This was a seeping time bomb of chromium into our water,” said Friends of the Earth Middle East’s Palestinian director Nader Khateeb.

He spoke as he welcomed the news that helps pave the way for the chromium removal plant in the Hebron Industrial Zone to resume operations after almost a decade.

chromium III, or trivalent chromium, is an essential component in the process of transforming animal skins into usable leather, used widely by the 13 Palestinian tanneries in the industrial zone.

Residual chromium from the process that is not absorbed by the leather is released in the tannery effluents and can become highly carcinogenic once released into an open environment, according to FoEME Palestinian project coordinator Malek Abu Alfailat.

In 2005, the Civil Administration banned sulfuric acid – an essential ingredient in the chromium removal plant’s operation – because it could also be used as an explosive.

For the last four years, FoEME has lobbied the CA to rescind its ban. Earlier this month the CA notified FoEME it would allow sulfuric acid along with 17 other items into the West Bank as a gesture to support the Palestinian economy.

It stated that, “The expansion of the list will be permitted under tight coordination with the security services and according to a system of supervision regarding the entrance and use of permitted items.”

The gesture was made as efforts were under way to extend negotiations with the Palestinians beyond April 29th.

Mira Edelstein, a spokeswoman for FoEME, said she believes the IDF would stick with its decision with regard to sulfuric acid even though talks have broken down.

Khateeb said FoEME had focused attention on the environmental problems related to chromium III.

“Until FoEME started to focus on how to clean up the Hebron Industrial Zone in 2011, the release of chromium into the environment was conveniently ignored,” he said.

“Common sense has now prevailed and sulfuric acid will now be allowed for industry under supervision, as had been requested from the outset – and USAID is already working with the tanners to look at their needs to re-operate the small chromium removal plant,” said FoEME Israeli director Gidon Bromberg.

The concentration of chromium III in the effluents discharged collectively by the Hebron tanneries amounts to about 5,000 milligrams per liter – which is 1,000 times more than the globally permissible standards, Malek told The Jerusalem Post. About 10 cubic meters of this effluent is being discharged into the Hebron stream each day, Malek said.

Despite the fact that chromium VI – also known widely as hexavalent chromium – is not used in the tanning process, some of the chromium III compounds flowing in the effluents actually are eventually converted into the more carcinogenic, hexavalent chromium. In certain places along the stream, where the effluents seep down into soil layers containing no oxygen, the anaerobic conditions prompt the conversion of the chromium III into VI, Malek explained. The resultant hexavalent chromium is thereby able to spread in the soil as well as into certain portions of the Western Aquifer shared by Palestinians and Israelis.

Both the California Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have in recent years deemed hexavalent chromium to be carcinogenic through oral ingestion.

In 2007, a cohort of Israeli and Palestinian researchers – from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, the Palestinian House of Water and Environment and the Palestinian Water and Environmental Development Organization – submitted an extensive study on trans-boundary streams to USAID, which included an evaluation of chromium presence.

The study indicates that, although concentrations of chromium and other metals were high at all sites, the most polluted sites were found in the “downstream reach” portions – namely in Hazerim and Ze’elim.

Prof. Alon Tal, who was a co-author on the study, stressed that the Civil Administration’s decision is “something of a no-brainer” in the process of rehabilitating Nahal Beersheba, because as much as 70% of the sewage discharged from the Hebron region reaches the area’s groundwater.

“Let’s hope that the sulfuric acid supply is put to good use and contributes to environmental cooperation and progress rather than violence.”

To recover chromium, tanneries first precipitate the chromium from the effluents by adding an alkali – such as magnesium oxide – to the wastewater, Malek said. After several hours, the solution is then transferred to a centrifusion tank, and separates into one layer of high chromium content and a second with less than 5 milligrams of chromium per liter – the latter of which can now be safely pumped out. Sulfuric acid is then able to decrease the pH of the precipitated chromium from about 9 to about 2.4, making the chromium acidic enough for use in the tanning industry, Malek said.

If the tannery owners were to simply precipitate the chromium from the effluents, without adding the sulfuric acid for recovery, they would be left with a toxic waste product that could not be buried in an ordinary landfill, and would need to make an expensive journey to Ramat Hovav, Malek explained. While the sulfuric acid treatment plant costs NIS 95,000 to operate annually, the tannery owners can save NIS 400,000 each year simply by recovering the chromium, he added.

Although Palestinians take their drinking water from a confined section of the Western Aquifer that the chromium cannot reach, the substance is showing up in the shallow sections of the aquifer on both sides of the Green Line, Malek said. Animals do drink from these portions and then store heavy metals in their fatty acids, which many Arab villagers in turn consume, he explained.